The Media and the AR-15: Style Over Substance, Fear versus Fact

English: 1973 Colt AR-15 SP1 Sporter rifle
English: 1973 Colt AR-15 SP1 Sporter rifle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oh, the poor, maligned AR-15. The American media seem to keep  thick files full of disinformation on this “assault rifle” available for instant use. Anti-AR-15 filler went up on the web and out on the airwaves before law enforcement had even named Omar Mateen as the perpetrator of the June 12 attack on The Pulse, a nightclub serving Orlando, Florida’s LGBTQ community. Here are a few problems with that filler.

Problem #1: Contra early speculation, the weapon Mateen used in his killing spree wasn’t an AR-15. Police initially described it as an “AR-15-type assault rifle.” Now we’re told it was a different weapon, the Sig Sauer MCX.

Problem #2: Some media outlets continue to propagate the myth that the “AR” in AR-15 stands for “assault rifle.” It actually stands for “Armalite,” the company that first produced the gun.

Problem #3: Speaking of which, the term “assault rifle” isn’t exactly meaningless, but it doesn’t mean what you probably think it means. All it means is that a weapon looks ugly and scary and therefore makes a nice juicy target for demagogues. The expired 1994-2004 US “assault weapons ban” was about cosmetic features — bayonet lugs, flash suppressors, pistol grips and so forth — not about the performance characteristics of the weapons it applied to.

Problem #4: In point of fact, as scary as it might look, the AR-15 is actually a fairly under-powered weapon for killing people. Most rifles for hunting large American game animals shoot bullets in the .270 to .308 caliber range. The AR-15 fires a .223 bullet, just a little bigger than the .22 that most rural American 12-year-olds used to hunt rabbits and squirrels with. That’s one reason the US military likes the M-16, its version of the AR-15 — kill an enemy soldier, his buddies keep fighting; wound an enemy soldier, two of his buddies stop fighting to help him out.

Problem #5: There’s nothing new, high-tech or unusual about the AR-15. “Semi-automatic” rifles — rifles which fire one bullet each time the trigger is pulled and automatically reload themselves — have been around for more than a century, and the AR-15 itself for nearly 60 years. If someone tries to tell you that the AR-15 is an “automatic weapon” or a “machine gun,” they’re just flat wrong.

No amount of blaming the AR-15 (or the Sig Sauer MCX) for the Orlando attack will make the gun responsible for the attack. The shooter is to blame for the attack.

No amount of fear-mongering about the AR-15 or any other weapon will make victim disarmament — what its supporters call “gun control” — legislation either moral or practical. More than 100 million Americans own more than 300 million guns and are going to keep them.

Too bad a few of them weren’t at The Pulse on Sunday.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.